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An Interview With Artist Miriam Stern

An Interview With Artist Miriam Stern

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

How do you explain – in brief — the artwork you do?

I’m a painter and printmaker and do installations. I usually create bodies of work based on themes, sometimes Jewish but not always, sometimes they overlap. Almost all the work possesses abstract elements.

Since you work in themes, what message does your work have?

If it is Jewish oriented work, there are usually questions I raise rather than a message I want to give. For example, in the installation “V’at Alit Al Kulana” (And You Are Above All The Rest), I measured the distance between the women’s balcony and the Torah Ark in four Israeli synagogues. I showed the various distances using lace trimming attached to the walls of the gallery to demonstrate how far women are kept from Judaism’s holiest object. Using the same distances I also photographed myself holding a Torah. In this way the distances were presented linearly with the use of lace trimming and in perspective with photos. I affixed the photo of myself holding the Torah where the lace trimming ended and also put up a brass plaque with the name of the individual synagogue I measured.

I wanted the viewer to ask why are women put so far away from where the action is taking place in the synagogue. If you believe in separate seating in the synagogue, OK. But why must women be placed so far away? Why put them on a separate floor? What does this separation say about the community and the women who are part of it?

How does your art fit in with your Jewish life and beliefs?

I used to think I could compartmentalize my art between Jewish and secular. But I’ve come to see that you can’t separate one part of yourself from another. There’s always spillover when one cares about something deeply. At times my art reflects religious practice because I am committed to the tradition. However, it also challenges the tradition and status quo. My art reveals my struggle to reconcile faith with my feminist values. In the end my artistic practice is inextricably linked to, and informed by my gender and faith. I love being a woman, a Jew, and an artist. It is who I am.

How did your parents feel about your interest in becoming an artist?

I think they were ambivalent about it. It was not explicitly encouraged and I don’t think they had the tools or understanding to really support it. As a little girl I was always drawing but only two artworks remain from my childhood. The first is a pencil drawing on an object; a head shaped wig stand. My mother wore a wig called a shaytl that was traditional for married Jewish women to wear in the Orthodox community I grew up in. My mother stored hers on a muslin covered wig stand at night. Its face was blank and one day I couldn’t resist the urge to draw a face on it, I must have been eight or nine. My mother was quite upset, but somehow it survived and I still have it.

The other drawing is on a schoolbook cover. We used to cover books with brown paper bags that we got from the grocery store. In the fourth grade in Bais Yaakov, the religious girl’s school I attended, I had a teacher whom I really disliked. She constantly yelled and I was always getting in trouble for doodling and drawing. On the inside cover of my Navi book (Book of Prophets), I drew her portrait and it really captured her likeness and her character. I did not have words to articulate it then but I recognized in this portrait the power of images to communicate in ways that words cannot and I held on to it.

When I wanted to go to the High School of Music and Art, my parents were not supportive. I had gone to Bais Yaakov in the Bronx for 8 years and they wanted me to continue my Jewish education but I really wanted to go to Music and Art. Nonetheless, there was one teacher – my 8th grade English teacher – who encouraged me. I made a portfolio by myself consisting of a few drawings in a manila envelope. When I arrived at the school for the entrance exam and saw my competitors with big black leather portfolios, my heart sank; I didn’t think I had a chance.

One of the questions on the entrance exam was to “make a picture of what happened in the cabin.” My first thought was to draw a girl and boy in a cabin with a bear trying to come in, which in retrospect, was not particularly imaginative. But I didn’t have a clue about how to draw a bear, so I drew a giant spider-like animal, coming into the cabin. It took up most of the page and possessed a menacing quality. I think the teacher who interviewed me appreciated my ability to improvise. I also think they were impressed that I never had any formal art classes. What I perceived as weaknesses proved to be strengths. I was accepted and my parents relented.

Did your parents’ attitudes ever turn around?

Yes, I think they were proud, but it seemed easier for them to express it to others than to me. My mother was always telling me that she didn’t understand my art, ‘What is it?’ she would ask. But when I’d hear her talking to one of her friends about me I could tell she was proud. Later on my parents had some of my work in their home. So they slowly turned around.

If my artistic talent came from anybody it was my father. When he was a student in Germany everyone had to take art. Although his drawings were very academic it was clear he was an accomplished draftsperson. His portfolio has survived intact. After he died I took his pieces and scanned them to create “collaborative” pieces with him.

Do you feel like you see the world as an artist?

The challenge of seeing the world as an artist means opening oneself to seeing the world as potential subject matter. This happens a lot when I travel. I take many photographs, some as mementos, but many as reference material. Determining how to incorporate these images into my work is a challenge, but it’s a challenge I love. One needs dedication, perseverance and a lot of conviction to face the blank canvas.

This is an excerpt from an interview with the artist Miriam Stern that appears in the just-published book on her work, “Miriam Stern.”

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